Rafael Nadal did not just practice once the Sunday before the Rogers Cup. In the early evening, the 18-time Grand Slam champion could be seen doing another intense, 90-minute hitting session. Showcasing his powerful groundstrokes and doing intricate drills with coaches, the Montreal fans were treated to vintage Rafa.
Nadal has always possessed an affinity for the Rogers Cup in Montreal. For the Spaniard, it seems like yesterday he won this event as a teenager, coming off his first Grand Slam at Roland Garros. And beating the illustrious Andre Agassi in the final.
“For me, it was significant because it was my first hard court victory,” recalls Nadal. “It means a lot to me and I always have good feelings playing here.”
Nadal Still Eager to Play and Compete at High Level
A lot has changed for Rafael Nadal since his meteoric rise on the ATP Tour began as a teenager.
“I liked it when I was younger,” reminisces Nadal. “There was more contact among the players than there is today. I prefer a world without social networks but you have to adapt to the times.”
Despite heightened attention during the twilight years of his career, it has not sacrificed Nadal’s burning desire to compete and win. The 33-year-old secured his 12th Roland Garros title this past June and is coming off his second consecutive semifinal result at Wimbledon.
Despite the other two members of the Big Three, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, not in the Rogers Cup field, it does not put any added pressure on Nadal. He is focused on staying healthy and getting more accustomed to the hardcourts, leading up to the US Open.
“Tennis is more than just three players,” states Nadal. “I am focused on the ball, on the opponent, on things I have to do well to play at my best.”
High Praises for Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime
Two years ago, Nadal lost an epic three-set match to a young Canadian teenager. That player was Denis Shapovalov, who enjoyed a rapid rise in fame and popularity after that result.
“I have great memories of that atmosphere,” remembers Nadal when discussing the Montreal crowds on Court Central. “But not a good result for me personally.”
But during Sunday’s press conference, the World No. 2 was offering his praises to another rising Canadian tennis star. 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is on the precipice of tennis stardom, has caught the attention of the veteran Nadal. The 2019 season has been a career year for Felix, making three ATP finals, a Masters 1000 semifinal and defeating his first Top-10 player in Stefanos Tsitsipas. A similar rise through the rankings that Nadal experienced when he was a teenager.
“I like his character, he is smart,” said Nadal. “I would love to see Felix on top position winning important things because I really believe he deserves it and I really believe he will do it.”
Rafael Nadal Has Opportunity for Rogers Cup History
Coming in as the defending champion and No. 1 seed, Nadal is certainly one of the favourites to hoist the championship trophy. With a victory, Nadal would have five Rogers Cups, putting him in second place for most all-time behind Ivan Lendl with six. Nadal would join Lendl, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic as the only players to win back-to-back Rogers Cups.
Once a year, Canadian tennis fans get to watch in awe of the best players in the world. As the Spaniard and his coaches walked off the practice courts on Sunday, they were greeted to passionate cheers. Nadal spent extra long signing autographs for his supporters.
There is no telling how long the Spaniard has left on the ATP Tour. But even in his veteran age of 33, Nadal still continues to capture the tennis world with his grit and unstoppable shotmaking.
Aside from the Canadians, the crowds will be energetic and enthusiastic towards Nadal. A reality that matches the unique persona Nadal brings wherever he plays worldwide.
Lukas Weese is in Montreal for the Rogers Cup on behalf of Tennis Canada.
Main Photo from Getty.